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Patanjali & a ‘Pandemic of Misinformation’: Why Health Is a Core Political Issue

Patanjali appeals to nationalist sentiment to gain people's trust without sharing credible scientific evidence.

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Political discussions are often frowned upon in Indian medical institutions and conferences, while often being common in medico WhatsApp groups.

Questions connecting health to politics are often silenced or ignored.

“This is a political question. I am a clinician and I do not need to comment on this,” said a tuberculosis expert at a conference on tuberculosis elimination in Delhi on being asked how the clinicians present at the conference were working to eliminate tuberculosis with drugs being out of stock.

Health, however, is at its core also a political issue and the recent crackdown on Patanjali by the Supreme Court reflects that.

Patanjali, which has grown as a corporate entity over the last many years, has been promoted as a counter to multi-national companies and allopathic dominance in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and pharma space.

There has been support from both the central and state level which has enabled this growth.
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Political Support & Taxpayer’s Money for Coronil Kits

The Patanjali Research Institute was inaugurated in Haridwar in 2017 in the presence of political leadership.

Later in 2021, the then Union Health Minister endorsed the launch of Coronil, the pill that claimed to have a cure rate of 100 percent, just before the deadly second wave of the pandemic hit India.

Without any scientific evidence, Coronil, which was initially licensed as an “immunity booster” was re-licensed as a “supportive medicine” and then relaunched as a cure for COVID-19.

The request to change the license was made by the central government and was granted by the Uttarakhand AYUSH licensing director even though the formulation of the pill remained unchanged.

Regulatory authorities in Nepal were prompt in stopping the distribution of Coronil kits gifted to them by Patanjali as the Department of Ayurveda and Alternative Medicines of Nepal did not find the nasal drugs and tablets to be “equivalent to medicines to defeat the COVID-19 virus.”

Contrary to this, in May 2021, the government of Haryana announced that it would distribute 1 lakh Coronil kits among COVID-19 patients.

Half of the cost of these kits was borne by Patanjali and the other half was paid from taxpayers’ money through the state’s “COVID Relief Fund.”

Leveraging Diseases & Attacking Allopathy To Drive Revenues

The political support and a blind eye from the drug regulatory and law enforcement authorities made it easier for Patanjali to sell and claim whatever they wanted without showing any scientific evidence for the effect of the pills.

Section 4 of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act of 1954 explicitly states that “no person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement relating to a drug if the advertisement contains any matters which — (a) directly or indirectly gives a false impression regarding the true character of the drug; or (b) makes a false claim for the drug, or (c) is otherwise false or misleading in any material particular.”

Section 89 of the Consumer Protection Act of 2019 also makes false or misleading advertisements illegal.

COVID-19, however, was not the only disease that Patanjali as a corporate entity has leveraged to make profits.

The company’s products have been claimed to cure diabetes, high blood pressure, heart diseases, and autoimmune conditions.

Patanjali’s website continues to advertise its “Cancer Care Support Program”, a 15-day program that claims to detoxify the body, improve immunity to fight cancer cells, and support the regeneration of healthy cells in patients with any stage of cancer.

Last year, Baba Ramdev, in a public forum, also claimed that “allopathy” does not have a cure for cancer but it can be cured using cow urine extract and ayurvedic medicines.

The result of these false claims – the company’s revenue increased by 2.5 times from 2019 to 2023, with the revenue in 2023 being roughly Rs 31,821 crore.

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When Independent Checkpoints Fail…

It is vital to understand why this ‘pandemic of misinformation’ and pseudoscience promoted by Patanjali is a public health emergency.

By referring to “allopathy” as “English medicine” and ayurveda as “homegrown medicine,” Patanjali appeals to nationalist sentiment to gain the trust of people without sharing credible scientific evidence to back up their claims.

Those who gullibly fall for these claims either do not reach a healthcare facility to get diagnosed or discontinue scientifically proven medicines and shift to Patanjali formulations.

Once they face complications, or when the disease reaches its end stage people turn to allopathy, with limited possibility of any clinical benefits.

This further impacts the trust in modern medicine as the window period of treating diseases is lost to products sold based on misleading claims, a fact accepted even by Ramdev in his “unconditional apology.”

People therefore end up blaming modern medicine for not being able to save their loved ones. Pseudoscientific approaches also add to the family's financial burden, making them incapable of seeking proper care later.

However, the Patanjali fiasco is a symptom of a larger malaise.

Drug regulation, law enforcement agencies, and media houses are equally at fault.

They allowed Patanjali to communicate misinformation without a check.

In an ideal world, the license to be marketed would have never been granted to Coronil. Even if granted, Pantajali should have been penalised for spreading misinformation as per the laws.

Even if the law failed, the media houses should have been responsible and verified all the facts before communicating them to the masses.

Patanjali was able to exploit people because the three supposedly independent checkpoints failed to do their job. We all owe gratitude to Dr Babu KV, a doctor from Kerala, whose persistent activism helped in bringing this issue to the public’s attention.

While Patanjali has come under the radar, will other companies that have been spreading similar misinformation be regulated too? Or will citizens have to remind the regulators what their job is again and again, and continue to face disappointment?

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Health Security Not Taken Seriously in the ‘Pharmacy of the World’

India’s poor drug regulation record has been criticised before. The “pharmacy of the world” has recently attracted global attention for the wrong reasons.

While data from other countries has emerged, how many people have suffered from poor drug regulation in India remains unknown.

However, even a single death due to poor regulation, being preventable, should be talked about.

The way maternal deaths are often strictly audited in India within medical institutions, serious adverse events linked to or deaths due to poor quality and pseudoscientific drugs should be audited too, and corrective action should be prioritised.

It is high time the authorities strengthened their regulatory grips on drug manufacturing, advertisement, and distribution in India to reinforce its reputation as the pharmacy of the world.

Lastly, it is important to reflect on the Patanjali ads in Supreme Court experience – does this not tell us that health always was, and will remain a core political issue?

While we are in the midst of election season, and especially given our pandemic experience, we must also ask why health and health security is not given the seriousness it deserves in political commitments, and more importantly, by citizenry.

(Dr Parth Sharma is a public health physician, researcher, and the founding editor of Nivarna.org, a public health advocacy and information platform. Dr Anant Bhan is a researcher in global health, bioethics, and health policy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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